New Indiana schools chief seeks to return education debate to classrooms

INDIANAPOLIS — Among the election’s many surprises was the return of a Republican to the role of state schools chief.

Jennifer McCormick, pictured above, went into the race for superintendent of public instruction with little name recognition, one-sixth of the campaign money of her opponent, Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz, and media and an electorate more focused on contests for president, senator and governor.

She came out the other end with a vote count not just higher than that of Ritz, who was backed by teachers’ unions, but more votes than GOP Governor-elect Eric Holcomb received in his race.

“I knew when we were running just a thousand votes behind Todd Young, we were doing OK,” McCormick said of the Republican who toppled Democratic icon Evan Bayh in the U.S. Senate race.

Young and Holcomb helped pull her along, but so did President-elect Donald Trump’s 19-point victory in Indiana.

McCormick, who won with 53 percent of the vote, spent Thursday morning granting media requests, giving a long string of fast interviews for day-after-the-day-after election coverage.

“I’m doing them in 15-minute increments,” she said as she sat in a parking lot outside an Indianapolis news radio station.

Until now the superintendent of a fast-growing Yorktown district north of Indianapolis, McCormick billed herself in campaign material as a “conservative, educator, reformer.” Now she has to define what that means in a Statehouse long embroiled in bruising battles over education policies.

As state superintendent, McCormick won’t have the power to make laws. But she can have major influence as overseer of an education department serving more than 1 million schoolchildren.

Eight years ago, Hoosiers elected the proudly disruptive Tony Bennett to the job. He ushered in then-Gov. Mitch Daniels’ aggressive education reform which killed teacher tenure and tied state dollars to student outcomes.

Four years later voters were led by an organized teachers rebellion in taking out Bennett and putting in Ritz, who spent much of her tenure blocking those reforms and battling with the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Mike Pence.

What path will McCormick take? Likely neither.

“There were things Dr. Bennett accomplished in his time that I agreed with and some I didn’t,” she said. “The same with Glenda Ritz.

“For me, it’s going to be about my leadership and what my team wants to accomplish,” she added. “And I’m going to let a lot of that be driven by what I hear out in the field.”

For eight years, Republicans have opened wide the umbrella of “school choice” to move the state away from a traditional model of community-based public schools.

They’ve allowed students to cross district lines in choosing the schools they want to attend, expanded charter schools outside of the control of local districts, and built one of the nation’s biggest private school voucher programs.

McCormick supports the concept of school choice, but she’s also talked about the damage done to traditional public schools whose dollars are diverted by it.

So, one of her biggest issues in the coming legislative session will be the school funding formula. It has undergone major changes in recent years, as lawmakers have worked to tie dollars more closely to student test scores and school performance.

McCormick said it’s time to take another look.

“We are so consumed in the state right with some of the reform movement, that we’re not even sure if they work,” she said. “No one’s really watching that trend data and evaluating things.”

For McCormick, there are challenges ahead.

Among them is fulfilling a legislative mandate to revamp the much-hated standardized ISTEP test, which has been a stuck in a political swamp as it’s grown more costly and difficult to administer.

McCormick’s hope is that she can minimize the partisanship surrounding education policy.

“In the first 100 days,” she said, “it’s going to be extremely important to refocus education back on the classroom.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.